All The President's Zombies

You see them wandering stiffly all over Washington--political lost souls staggering through the swamps of their own misfortune. They're known as "zombies" in capital parlance, and Bill Clinton has done more to swell their ranks than Dr. John the Night Tripper, the celebrated voodoo rocker.

Who are these unfortunates? They're the washouts and would-have-beens of the Clinton Administration--folks such as Warren M. Christopher. This spring, the White House leaked word that the President wouldn't mind if his Secretary of State quit next year. Ever since, Christopher's authority has ebbed; lately, he has seen key diplomatic missions subcontracted out to former President Jimmy Carter.

SHARED PAIN. Christopher has lots of company in limbo, thanks to his boss's aversion to firing underperforming aides. All Presidents, even such no-nonsense types as Richard M. Nixon, have had trouble cutting loose associates. But Bill "I share your pain" Clinton has raised this Presidential dithering to an art form. "There's a consistent pattern," sighs a Clinton adviser. "He pouts, but he isn't tough enough to fire people. So they end up as walking zombies."

Democratic National Committee Chairman David C. Wilhelm joined the ranks of the undead this summer, when Clinton tapped former California Representative Tony Coelho to be a "senior adviser" to the DNC. In effect, the move put Coelho, an investment banker with Wertheim Schroeder & Co., in charge of midterm election strategy. That left Wilhelm with a spacious office, a swell view of the Washington skyline--and no operational authority. He will stay on through the election cycle and then is expected to return to Chicago Democratic politics.

White House Political Director Joan N. Baggett met a similar fate. The former labor lobbyist got poor marks from White House pols and was expected to lose her job as part of Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta's recent White House reorganization. She now plans to depart at the end of the year. For months, key political decisions have been made by a team that includes Deputy Chief of Staff Harold C. Ickes and Panetta lieutenant Doug Sosnik.

Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers has scarcely fared better. Convinced that the 33-year-old former campaign aide lacked the stature and media savvy for the job, Panetta has been trying to force Myers into a subsidiary role since the summer. When she balked, Clinton agreed to a typically Byzantine deal: Myers will be promoted to Presidential assistant, with a raise and larger quarters. She has told associates that she plans to exit by yearend; in the meantime, she's in.

Some Clintonites never seem to decamp, no matter what their travails. White House Communications Director Mark D. Gearan, recently shifted to his third assignment as head of a nonexistent long-range planning unit, seems content with his ghostly travels through the West Wing. Former Chief of Staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty III finds his nonjob of business liaison satisfying. And over in Foggy Bottom, spinmeister David R. Gergen--banished from the White House when the Clintons tired of his conservative advice--is happy working on ways to turn the U.S. occupation of Haiti into a public-relations bonanza. "Clinton constantly creates these disempowered nobles," says Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld, an Emory University management professor. "They have fiefs, but no legitimacy."

ROOTLESS SOULS. The President's belief in redemption is legendary and, judging by his own career, warranted. But he has created a chorus of rootless souls, and he may well pay a future price for his lax personnel policies. "In the short run, Clinton thinks he's being a good boss by helping staffers extend their jobs," says James P. Pfiffner, a George Mason University political scientist. "But in the long run, Presidents have got to be ruthless in making tough decisions."

Of course, even Clinton's compassion has its limits. He engineered last year's ouster of Defense Secretary Les Aspin, a managerial bust, and bid adieu to Arkansas chum Webster L. Hubbell when legal woes made Hubbell's position as Associate Attorney General untenable. But by and large, Clinton still is unwilling to confront wayward staffers and say: "Your time is up." That stern dictum seems to have had the desired effect on the Haitian junta. What a growing number of Clinton-watchers are wondering is: Why doesn't the President apply it a little closer to home?


President Clinton's compassion--or indecision--has limits. Defense Secretary and managerial

bust Les Aspin was ousted last year


White House press aide Dee Dee Myers got a raise and a new, larger office--but she's still expected to be out by the end of the year


Secretary of State Warren Christopher is in limbo, his authority ebbing as freelancers such as Jimmy Carter invade his turf

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